Could a diverse group of humans come together without bias or undue influence to address large, complex issues that were relevant to the federal government? Could they collectively act as a Delphic oracle with computers playing a passive, enabling role that;
“…would eliminate much of the tedium of data collection and collation as well as reduce the influence of individual group members.”?
That was a goal of a study chronicled in 1972 by Murray Turoff in Delphi Conferencing: Computer-Based Conferencing with Anonymity.
The 46-page, thought-provoking article was published in Technological Forecasting and Social Change, which is also item #1239 in our catalog.
At the time, Murray Turoff, one of HCLE’s EdTech Pioneers, was associated with the Office of Emergency Preparedness of the National Resource Analysis Center. The organization’s goal was to deal with complex problems. One approach was the Delphi Method of group communication, and in this instance, to manage those interactions via the innovative concept of computer conferencing.
Organizing any group encounters familiar difficulties of social interactions, scheduling, and logistics. For a variety of reasons, individual voices do not always carry equal weight. Rather than simply assume that the computer was the answer, a comparison was made between the various alternatives:
- conference calls
- in-person informal meetings
- formal conferences
- Delphi Exercise
- Delphi Conference (as stated in the article)
Each was evaluated against criteria:
- group size
- interaction occurrence
- length of interactions
- number of interactions
- communication mode
- response times
- equality and efficiency of information flow
The advantages of Computer-Based Conferencing with Anonymity were: anonymity, scalability, asynchronous communication, equality of information dissemination, and convenience assuming everyone had similar computer infrastructure.
The method was tested by first inviting (by phone, because of the era) twenty individuals for a 13 week trial. By design, the system was supposed to only need about ten minutes of self-instruction for each individual. After that, participants could engage in discussions, initiate topics, and generally conduct the meeting without much control.
Because the meeting was handled by hardware and software, the method had the ability to track the discussions, note which topics were voted higher, and measure digressions.
Such an arrangement can seem trivial now because many social media and program management options are readily available. Back then, the team had to develop social norms for asynchronous, anonymous interactions and settled into posting patterns of about one to three interactions per week. Keep in mind that the interface was via teletype. By the end of the trial, nineteen topics were discussed with digressions five levels removed from the original topic.
“By the time the conference was over, at least ten of the respondents were using secretaries or junior staff to obtain the latest items and put in responses as directed.”
One major benefit may have been;
“In fact, one cannot help observing that this particular group might have serious difficulties operating as a face-to-face panel or committee. Probably more significant is the observation that members of this group normally would never have come together,”
While Murray says;
“…this article is probably the most important first thing i ever did. It was the very first collaborative system on a computer (asynchronous operation)”
it also is not seen as a panacea.
“…the Delphi Conferencing approach should not be considered solely as an alternative for other group-communication methods”
It is, however, a good example of a pioneering use of computers and computing that resonates in today’s world of social media, online education, and collaborative discussions.